In Response To Stanley Fish’s “Will The Humanities Save Us?”

(x-posted to The Valve)

Bill Benzon calls our attention to a new blog entry by Stanley Fish, posted by The New York Times here.

It is easy to imagine how, after a lifetime of dedicated scholarship, an emeritus professor like Fish might react in frustration against the platitudes in Education’s End, a new book by professor of law Anthony Kronman. Kronman has little to offer us; his vision of college as a place for the “nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together form the basis for living the best life one can” is a rhetorically tepid, repackaged version of a pedagogical philosophy shared by many earlier authors, including Matthew Arnold and Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne figures prominently in Alexander Nehamas’s book The Art of Living, which is entirely devoted to the enormous history of this idea within the Western philosophical tradition alone, to say nothing of history, literary studies, or the other constituent disciplines of the humanities.

That said, the banality of Kronman’s prose is no excuse for what Fish has written. Fish ends his post thus:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

The crux of Fish’s argument against literature as an agent of moral self-fashioning goes like this:

If [Kronman’s position] were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge.

It my sincere belief that this argument is worthless. I hope, when I am finished, that it will be ashamed to show its face again. It is hardly original with Fish; rather, it is everywhere, since it makes scholars in the humanities feel humble and forthright, and it makes people hostile towards the humanities rejoice.


To begin with, there is no universal standard of behavior to which Fish can appeal in order to prove his point. Instead, one of the foundational principles of much study in the humanities is the idea of incomparability: we give up trying to decide whether one individual, or one culture, is essentially superior to another. Look at the description he chooses: “generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people.” Such an account of the supposed purpose of literary studies would have sickened Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote:

The oppressed, downtrodden, outraged exhort one another with the vengeful cunning of impotence: “let us be different from the evil, namely good! And he is good who does not outrage, who harms nobody, who does not attack, who does not requite, who leaves revenge to God, who keeps himself hidden as we do, who avoids evil and desires little from life, like, us, the patient, humble, and just.” (Genealogy of Morals, 1.14)

Nietzsche also described honesty as the virtue of those afraid of what secrets others may keep from them. Of course, nobody has to take Nietzsche at his word, but there is value in confronting him with sympathy, or with hatred. Here Kronman hits the mark. He writes about students considering “which alternatives lie closest to their own evolving sense of self,” and, presumably, which others lie furthest away. There is no reason to assume that engagement with texts produces a certain type of person, least of all a person who could equally belong to a Christian ministry.

Fish makes the ministry his standard for a justified moral vocation: “Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry.” In fact, ministers are also engaged in interpreting and teaching texts. Their proper subject is theology, and they are just as prone as other human beings to moral and ethical lapses. This fact has not yet extinguished religion, or forced it to withdraw into a sterile self-regard. Fish attacks the humanities but not other forums for moral education and reflection. He writes as though he had never read Chaucer, or, more to the point, as though he were a stranger to Milton.

Fish’s sample consists of “the members of literature and philosophy departments.” That is, his sample of the human population bears absolutely no relation to the actual participation of thinking people in what we might call “the humanities.” Artists, lay readers of all kinds, and students — to name only three of the many constituencies of the arts and human sciences — are excluded here, along with any thought of the purposes the humanities serve outside of the academy. Fish also imposes judgment from the outside; while he vastly overvalues his own anecdotal observations, he leaves no space for personal accounts of a profound experience of an intellectual work. I know, from reading an earlier blog post, that Fish has been an ardent admirer of Frank Sinatra for most of his life, and that he sees Sinatra as a symbol of “single-minded dedication to craft.” Craft is, of course, the most reflexive virtue of a work of art, but it is a virtue nonetheless, and not the only one a reader, interlocutor, or listener may choose to admire. The idea of devoting oneself to a craft is precisely the sort of moral valuation that opens out onto many human enterprises, including scholarship, and endows life with resonance and meaning. Fish will have his Sinatra, but deprive us of ours.

Fish writes that the humanities are their own good, and believes in studying them for their sake. I believe in studying them for our sake. But I do not mean for the sake of the salvation of mankind, understood in some grandiose manner. There truly is a difference between the evangelist and the reader. Humanism is not, as Fish seems to think, a substitute for Sunday school. It is the emergence of a reflective capacity within human culture, and so represents the possibility of a truly self-determined culture for individuals and collectives alike. The humanities are an archive of reflective modes of encounter and expression: close reading, historical reconstruction, artistic making, anthropological study, and so on. The arts and human sciences do not make us better people, according to some a priori moral standard that Fish, despite himself, cannot help bringing to bear upon them. Instead, they make witnesses and authors of us. They make us responsible, and free.